Whole Body Listening

‘The first three sessions were in complete silence. We didn’t say a thing.’

My colleague, a psychotherapist and a Spiritual Companion, was talking about her work in a psychiatric ward with a young person who had been badly traumatised.

‘The sessions were completely silent?’ I asked.

‘Yes. This young person froze the moment that any older person walked into the room. So I kept quiet and waited.’

‘Did you ever speak?’

‘Yes finally in the fourth session,’ my friend replied. ‘I could feel the tension in the room relaxing and the atmosphere changed. The first words I said to the young person were: Can you feel the change in atmosphere in the room?’

‘And what happened?’ I queried.

‘My patient nodded that she felt it. That was the beginning of the conversation which helped lead to recovery.’

‘And what were you doing when you were silent in those first sessions?’ I asked.

‘I was guiding my breath to be calm. I prayed for healing. I opened my heart. I wanted to be a reassuring presence.’

This conversation moved me. I was touched that deep in our health system, in an inner city psychiatric ward, in the middle of our goal-driven and intense world, there was the space for this composed and wise approach. In old-fashioned language this used to be called ‘good bedside manner.’ In spirituality it might be called ‘co-presence’. In therapy or early years schooling ‘whole body listening.’

THREATS OR REASSURANCE

It was particularly relevant to me because in Spiritual Companions we teach listening skills and I was becoming increasingly unclear about how best to do this. At the same time I was affected by another colleague who said that he disliked people who listened ‘professionally.’

‘It’s the way that they lean into me,’ he said, ‘their faces slightly screwed up and their intense focus. It feels as if they are waiting for me to share a particular type of personal information and they will not back off until they hear what they want to hear. It’s intrusive and pushy. It shuts me up. I want to escape.’

I knew exactly what he meant. I had been on the receiving end. I even did it myself when I was younger, waiting for a client to disclose their emotions and feelings before I relaxed and gave them approval for being a ‘good’ client. In fact I was just gratifying my egoistic need to prove that I was a good helper.

That is definitely not true listening or helping. In fact, to name it at its worst, it is a subtle abuse of power over someone who is vulnerable.

So it was beautiful to hear my colleague talking about the three sessions of complete silence in which trust and safety slowly grew.

This is similar to Gerda Boyesen’s wonderful story, which I often tell, about when she came over from Norway to London.

She was the founder of Biodynamic Psychology and there were many people who wanted to be her clients. She made appointments to see them, but found that she was frustrating them with her bad understanding of English, often asking them to repeat what they had just said. So she decided just to keep quiet, to sink deep into her body, be a reassuring presence and occasionally make comforting noises to show she was listening. Without any of her usual therapeutic questioning, but just her warm presence, her clients started to open about themselves faster than she had ever previously experienced.

Silence and a warm reassuring presence did more than all her expert professional enquiry.

STOP HUNTING

How then can we best teach these deeper listening skills? It might seem very simple. Be quiet. Be calm. Be relaxed in your body. Simultaneously be attentive and fully present to your companion.

But there is a problem here. The moment that you are asked to be attentive you may experience an arousal, a very mammalian response based in survival instincts. Instead of becoming calm, the call to be attentive may trigger you into a hyper-vigilance as if you were on the hunt or being hunted. Be alert or die!

This style of aroused and forced listening is obviously not what we want. If we listen in this hyped up state, then we transmit a threatening message to our companion. Our body language and ambience are anxious. The adrenalin in our sweat even sours our aroma.

It is obvious, isn’t it? That kind of intense listening is bad practice. Its actually frightening for people. There is a threat! Is this a hunt? Am I the hunted?

But there is this other kind of highly attentive listening which is deeply relaxed and reassuring. I want to suggest to you that you have probably already learnt it in the classroom of life. But perhaps you have not yet noticed that you learnt it.

Here for example are two widespread circumstances where you have most likely listened calmly and with full awareness.

The first is when you were with a friend, a family member or a loved one who was ill or in pain – and you just sat patiently with them. Your companion may have been asleep or restless or chattering. You may perhaps have sat for hours or days, aware of their breathing, their movements and their needs. You have done that, haven’t you? You also respected their space and if they wanted to be left alone you withdrew. Listening, fully aware, relaxed, heart open. No arousal or hyper-vigilance, but completely present, connected.

The second is when you have been in nature. Surely you have had quiet times in nature, relaxed, aware of the noises, the aromas, the touch of breeze against your skin, noticing everything, but calm, connected and at ease.

Those two situations – sitting with someone who is ill and being quiet in nature – contain the body language, the ambience and the feeling of true full-body listening and co-presence. You can already do it. And if you have done it once in one kind of situation, you can do it again in another.

But this skill does not come with a diploma or a stethoscope, does it?

It comes from something healthy and normal in human nature – our natural inclination and ability to be empathic, connected and benevolent, a healing presence and a force for good.

The Real Value of Hugs

 

Hugs are good for us. This was a consistent message at the Spiritual Care Conference that we hosted in Glastonbury a few weeks ago.

David MacGeogh, Anglican vicar of Glastonbury, reported that a crucial part of his pastoral care was just to give appropriate hugs. Author David Hamilton spoke about the benevolent biochemistry of touch.

Without hugs and touch babies and children do not develop properly. There is poignant evidence that without appropriate physical contact children’s brains simply do not grow to fill the space inside their skulls. Baby monkeys deprived of their mothers  hugs exhibit anxiety all through their lives.

There are many reasons why hugs are good for our ongoing health and wellbeing:

They stimulate hormones such as oxytocin, endorphins and serotonin, which open up tissue, enable flexibility and strengthen the body’s immune system.

They create feelings of security, pleasure and contentment. They make us feel wanted.

They help us relax, centre and be comfortable in our bodies.

They teach us to give and receive.
They harmonise the chakras and the flow of vitality through the body.
They reassure us that all is well with the world.
In fact one of America’s most influential psychotherapists, Virginia Satir, once wrote: ‘The recommended daily requirement for hugs is: four per day for survival, eight per day for maintenance, and twelve per day for growth.’
*
But what if we are in a situation where no hugs are available? Or we are in one of those moods where we do not want to be touched? Or we are in pain and touch only makes things worse?

At the Spiritual Care Conference another of the speakers was Sister Jayanti, a Hindu nun and director of the Brahma Kumaris University. After her talk, I wanted to give her a hug ad peck her on the cheek as a gesture of affection and appreciation, but I knew that would not be appropriate.

˜I can’t kiss or hug you,’ I said. ‘What should I do?’

˜In my world,’ she replied, ‘we greet each other and connect with our smiling eyes.’

Smiling and with sparkling eyes, she met my eyes and bowed in the Hindu gesture of Namaste ‘I greet your soul.’ It was a very lovely moment, a friendly connection. Thinking about it later it felt, had I actually hugged her, that her body would have melted away and I would have been hugging nothing. She was so ethereal that her physical body was hardly involved in the communication. Her eyes were acting as a gateway to her soul

The Namaste connection was not physical, but soul to soul. Although there was no physical touch it was reassuring and loving and benevolent. This is similar to the touch, the embrace of spiritual experience and connection. The biggest embrace there is. And that is always available, isn’t it?

For me I most easily receive that spiritual embrace from landscape and in meditation. All I have to do is pause and allow myself to feel and receive what is there.

When do you most easily receive it?

*

If I were presented with a life-long choice – hugs or meditation –  I would chose meditation.In the silent calm I feel myself enfolded in the benevolent mystery of the universe and the healing resonance of the natural world. That is, for me, the best embrace of all.

Sogyal Rimpoche, who wrote the modern version of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, once said in a talk at St. James’s Church: ‘If you don’t feel better after meditating you’re doing something wrong.’

But I do not want to set up a polarity between body and soul, between physical hugs and spiritual rapport. If we have learnt anything from paganism and other nature-based spiritualties, it is that spirit is fully manifest in our physicality too. Body and soul and spirit entwine.

*

Perhaps it is because of my meditation and ongoing spiritual connection, or perhaps its just my character type, but I personally don’t want or need the prescribed twelve hugs a day. An occasional hug works for me.

I did however certainly need them when I was a baby and a child – and I want all children without exception to receive all the hugs, cuddles and touch they need to make them strong, confident, loving and independent.

Also I want any of us who feel lonely, sad or in pain to have the hugs and touch that we too need.

The poignancy is when this natural need, perhaps yearning, for physical comfort and reassurance and healing cannot be met.

When you see someone starved of care, touch and affection what do you feel? I imagine that your response is one of compassion and wanting to reach out and touch and hug.

Is there, I wonder, some kind of natural law here, like nature abhors a vacuum? Lack of hugs = Growth of compassion.

*

On a greater scale I believe that the benevolent mystery of the universe also responds to a hug-less, loveless vacuum.

If we open to spiritual connection, we can find the most profound reassurance and comfort in the healing fields of energy that permeate the universe and nature. In many traditions, the great mystery of the universe is understood to be our loving Father or Mother and this cosmic parent is always there for a limitless hug, unconditional love and embrace.

So if and when you need a hug, and you are alone or ignored, relax as best you can and receive the deep reassurance, love and comfort of Mother Earth and Father Sky.

So I wish you hugs. And I wish you too an ever-deepening spiritual connection.

Psychological Resistance in Mind-Body Healthcare

This paper appeared in the August 2006 ‘Journal of Holistic Healthcare’. This is the journal of the British Holistic Medical Association, a body open to anyone interested in a more holistic approach to healthcare and life in general.

 
Abstract
 
Though the mind-body connection is increasingly recognized as a therapeutic resource, therapies that tap into it can trigger psychological dynamics of resistance. These dynamics affect both the individual who tries to implement mind-body healthcare, and the practitioner who is enabling it. The suggestion of this paper is that mind-body healthcare requires a substantial transformation in an individuals worldview and sense of identity. Consequently it may be better understood as a dramatic transformational process involving psychological death and birth, rather than the simple acquisition of some self-care techniques. Therefore practitioners may require particular skills when they seek to guide their clients.
 
***
 
One morning in the Autumn of 2005, I was clearing up breakfast dishes in the kitchen when I heard my wife, Sabrina Dearborn, gasp and then laugh. I turned to see what was happening. Her hands were holding her lower stomach and she looked pleasantly astonished. I asked her what was going on. She explained.
 
For three years she had been suffering from a stomach ulcer and had tried various mainstream and complimentary approaches to curing it. Early on in the process she had become aware of the possible psychological sources of the ulcer and had spoken several times about her stressful mood and attitude, which possibly triggered the production of the acidic endocrinal conditions that fed the ulcer and caused her pain. Her laughter, she said, was due to the fact that in that precise moment she had witnessed herself changing mood, going into a negative thought pattern and simultaneously her ulcer had begun to hurt. The connection between her thought process and her pain was explicit and, most crucially, recognized.
 
Her amusement came from three sources: the blatant experiential obviousness of the mind-body pattern negative thoughts = stomach acid; the promise, now that she fully understood it, that she could possibly self-manage and cure the ulcer; and the knowledge that the illness and her witnessing the pattern which triggered its exacerbation, were now leading her into a character change that would be good for her. There was insight and there was hope.
 
This is similar to what is perhaps the best known story in mind-body medicine, described in Anatomy of an Illness, when Norman Cousins, who had ankylosing spondylitis, realised that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain free sleep.(1)
 
There is an interesting and poignant paradox here, of which holistic practitioners are aware. In this paradox there is the suffering and pain of the actual illness. But along with it is the delight at the nature and process of self-managed healing. Illness presents itself here not just as an intrusion, but also as a gateway to some enlightenment and personal development. This is part of the tragic-comedy of the human condition.
 
Perhaps at the top of the holistic practitioners caduceus, it would be appropriate to place a mask from Greek theatre, one half sad and the other happy.
 
***
 
To be aware of the mind-body connection is, however not enough. For many inexperienced years I expected people to practice self-management simply because it was logical and worked, but I have become more realistic. More often than not there is a disconnect between intellectually understanding the mind-body methodology and implications, and actually implementing them. For one aspect of the mind, it all makes perfect sense. But for the mind as a whole, for the psychological persona, the information does not compute. People are presented with a strategy that will cure them, but they are psychologically unable to integrate the logical consequences that they should employ the strategy.
 
This sabotaging mechanism is, in my experience, as much at work in practitioners as it is in clients. And, of course, it is also writ large in our culture as a whole, as the medical establishment and intellectual hegemony grindingly wrestle with the implications of integrative healthcare.
 
This lack of congruence between theory and practice, between knowing something and actualizing it, was very obvious when we conducted the cortisol experiment described in the paper which follows in this journal.(2) In this experiment, using saliva samples, cortisol levels were measured before and after a body-centered meditation strategy.(3) In general, the results are favorable towards the technique, showing that the intervention reduces cortisol levels. In terms of progressing the mind-body healthcare project this result is useful. For me, however, leading the intervention, something else very interesting was also taking place. Not reported, but alongside the cortisol testing, one of the papers co-authors, Val Bullen, was monitoring other changes. Two of these stand out.
 
At the beginning and at the end of each session, she asked students to measure how tall they were. Many of them experienced increased height as a result of the intervention. There was excitement around this. The release of stress, students of the spine will immediately recognize, allows the spine to open up and expand into its natural space. For people with many different kinds of challenge, this is significant. As witness to this scene, I was waiting for the coin to drop, for the realization that this was directly relevant to how they conducted their own lives and healthcare. There was excitement, but no jaw-dropping ah-ha, eureka moments. There was the usual disconnect.
 
There were two women there with whom I also spoke, who suffered from eczema, but experienced relief from its symptoms during and immediately after using the strategy. Not only did the sensations of irritation subside, but the presentation of the eczema on their faces disappeared. Again, there were the obvious implications for self-management and again there was a disconnect. The thirsty horse is led to water but does not drink.
 
After the cortisol experiment was complete I reflected on the whole event and my heart was particularly touched by the eczema incident. I wondered whether their inability to appreciate the significance of the process was my fault. Perhaps I should have been more explicit and more enthusiastic. Perhaps I should have performed a celebratory war dance, drumming, rattling and chanting with the full passion of my heart: Let the experience in! Its real! You yes you! can control your body chemistry! I should have danced this communication with all the fury of a tribal healer. O troubled hearts, you can indeed heal yourselves! You can increase your height! You can cure your eczema! But I did not. I behaved in a manner that was appropriate to our culture and presented myself professionally.
 
***
 
The psychological dynamics that impinge upon autonomous mind-body healthcare need to be carefully addressed. As practitioners if we do not engage with them we are obviously less than holistic and, strategically, if we do not find a way of coherently understanding and managing them, we may sabotage the integration of mind-body healthcare into general practice.
 
Let us first be clear about the intellectual argument, lest we think that the tendency to resist mind-body management is due to its theoretical lack of coherence and rigour. In fact, the argument is already won. From Pavlov’s dog onwards the case is proven. There is no doubt that the workings of the mind directly affect the endocrine system. The sound of the bell, associated with food, is sufficient to stimulate digestive juices. There is, of course, no real food, only the neural association. Many neural suggestions fearful, pleasurable, erotic and so on trigger endocrinal responses.
 
In terms of scientific rigour, the proposition that the endocrinal system responds to mental stimuli, regardless of whether the stimuli are real or imagined, is coherent, repeatable and testable. The growing field of PNI and its laboratory experiments, such as the one described in the paper mentioned above provide measured evidence of the mind-body effect and the efficacy of the many strategies.(4) As a result of these strategies there are specific and measurable results: slowing of heart beat, reduced blood pressure, appropriate carbon dioxide emissions, reduced cortisol and adrenalin, increased endorphins, relaxed tissue, reduced pain, boosted immune system and so on.(5) To the degree also that good science builds upon a previous body of knowledge, the traditional healthcare systems of, for example, Ayurveda and Taoism, provide further substantiating evidence.
 
There is also a clear commonality at the core of all mind-body strategies. Whatever the specific technique there is the common element of using focused mental attention. This focus can then be directed towards a variety of subjects: a mantra or affirmation, a healing image or prayer, music or sound, the movement of the breath in different areas of the body, the kinaesthetic sensation of particular body parts and areas of tissue, and the mood of the mind as it focuses within the body. All of this is to state that the actual strategies themselves are specific and coherent, with little room for ambiguity and, thence, avoidance.
 
Having asserted the theoretical integrity and methodological coherence of mind-body medicine, we can go on to look at the real reasons why people may not adopt its usage the psychological resistance.
 
***
 
The psychological resistance has its source, I suggest, in at least five dynamics:
 
Cognitive dissonance
Difficulties in learning
Paradigm shift
Threat to personal identity
Birth of new consciousness
 
Cognitive dissonance occurs when information received by the mind does not fit any previous frameworks of cognition and comprehension.(6) Well-known examples of this include US military intelligence, which could not accept reports that the Japanese were planning to attack Pearl Harbor, and African jungle pigmies, who on first seeing an elephant through a telescope. assumed it was an insect at the end of the tube. The new information is perceived but not cognized. The whole notion of mind-body self-management when presented to a client is also usually new and it requires a transformation in the usual frame of reference for understanding illness. The usual paradigm of illness is that it is purely something nasty that is done to us and for which we then go to an expert for help. This cognitive framework is well established and mind-body medicine inverts this to suggest that illness is something we may do to ourselves and the healing of which is, to a degree, in our own hands. The neural framework for cognizing and integrating this information does not exist.
 
Learning difficulties. Anyone who has experienced learning a completely new skill or set of concepts is familiar with the time and effort required to grasp them. There is an uncomfortable period before the new framework has integrated and landed, during which all the effort seems wasted. There is little immediate gratification. Moreover, with mind-body strategies, as with other self-management approaches, while it may be easy to practice the strategies carried along by a group dynamic, it is difficult to sustain the practice on ones own. The normal and usual difficulties in incorporating a new realm of knowledge are exacerbated by a sense of failure and disappointment.
 
Paradigm Shift. By its very nature of being embedded in culture, society and psychology, a prevailing paradigm resists a new one.(7) Self-esteem, status, and social and financial stability are usually embedded in a prevailing worldview. The established healthcare paradigm, like paradigms in general, is reluctant to give up its leadership and influence. The financial and social investments are obvious, as are those of status. It has also been extremely successful. To shift this established worldview affects millions of people and billions of pounds of resources. Resistance is natural.
 
Threat to personal identity. This dynamic is, I suggest, the most powerful psychological factor in resisting self-managed healthcare. Self-managed healthcare is more than a concept, more than a pill, more than a visitor to a practitioner. It is a new action and a new behavior. This new behavior, by its very nature, signifies the appearance of a new self a self that behaves in this new way. This new self is, in certain ways, diametrically polarized against the old self and its activities directly oppose the old behavior and old attitudes. This old self is being asked to give way, to transform, to die. This is threatening.
 
Old behaviors, many of them originating in childhood, many of them compulsive and acted out daily, if not hourly, have furrowed deep neural grooves. They are embedded psychological traits. Transforming them can be an excruciating struggle, equal to those encountered when withdrawing from addictive substances. Thirty years of self-judgment or stoicism, for example, rarely give way gracefully to a more balanced style. These behaviors are firmly cemented into a habitual neural-endocrinal and psychological state.
An individuals sense of identity is that which gives coherence, sense and safety to their location in society and culture. Whatever the school of psychology from behavioral through psychoanalytic to transpersonal there is a common understanding that human beings, especially as infants, are insecure creatures who identify with and internalize the behavior and attitudes of the significant people around them. Once this internalization has occurred, it provides both a sense of personal coherence and the mode for being securely within their group.
 
This glue that normally binds people into their everyday sense of identity their culture, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, career, politics is so powerful that people aggressively defend it, attack competitors and will die for it. In many situations, the psychological identity’s instinct to survive is more forceful than the biological instinct. From suicidal political and religious activists through to the men and women who sing marching into war, there is ample evidence that people would often rather die than surrender their cultural personality.(8)
 
The transition, therefore, in healthcare towards self-management, can entail a battle royal with entrenched psychological resistance, to the point of self-destruction. To this we can add the normal infantile need, when in distress or pain, for healing and comfort rather than a shift into a mature self-responsibility. The personal history of childhood wounding and disempowerment may, understandably, fuel dogged inertia.
 
But there is even more to this great human drama. The very nature of mind-body methodology implies that there is the birth of new consciousness. In mind-body strategies people are transferring the control centre of their behavior, away from habitual attitudes and ways of thinking, to a new, witnessing, self-responsible persona and consciousness. There is here the birth of a new self.
 
In meditation and mindfulness traditions, there is this concept of waking up to reality. In this new consciousness – that of being the witnessing self, and able to choose attitudes and behaviors the individual finds himself being born again as a new type of creature. He perceives now that the human being whom he thought he was, is in fact, to a degree, a psychosocial automaton, a creature embedded in conditioned responses. Prior to this awakening, his sense of persona was formed in reaction to ongoing psychosocial constellations of circumstance. This is indeed a transformation, a death and rebirth. And like all birth, time is needed for development and integration. It is not a simple matter of waking up and then being awake forever. There is endless forgetting and falling back into the unconsciousness of just being a conditioned human creature. There is also the whole delicate business of integrating everything one was into the new state.(9)
 
***
 
When therefore, as practitioners of integrated health, we suggest that our companions engage in mind-body self-management, we need to acknowledge the far deeper process we are seeking to initiate. Most sensitively, we need to be present to the poignancy and paradox of the situation. There is discomfort, pain and anxiety, and yet there is the promise of creative transformation and emergence. This is a difficult balance to maintain. The extremes of clinical frigidity and new age you-create-your-own-reality cruelty are obviously to be avoided.
 
But the practitioner is not alone in seeking to enable self-managed mind-body healthcare. The individual seeking health, as well as possessing all the sabotaging psychological dynamics, is also dynamised by a will to survive and a will to develop. Just as there is a natural healing dynamic in nature wounds heal, flesh repairs so too the psyche itself seeks to emerge, heal and integrate. This is latent in human psychological development. Given the appropriate circumstances people grow.
 
And often, as we have been noting, it is illness itself, in its janus-faced paradoxical nature, that acts as midwife to the new persona and consciousness. Pain, fear, disorientation and relentless discomfort all create such constraints and disorientation on the psychosocial self that consciousness, looking for meaning and expression, emerges instinctively into this new persona and dimension. Perhaps there is nowhere else to go. Indeed in many books on death and dying, there are descriptions of that most poignant of events, when a person recognises that their illness is fatal, but nevertheless has emerged into such a new and balanced identity that they feel and assess themselves as healed. Their body has not been healed, but their consciousness has. This is what Stephen Levine has described as healing into death.(10)
 
Thus illness and trauma, even when fatal and painful, may deliver new consciousness.
 
***
 
In conclusion, at the very least we can be aware of the difficulties and paradoxes in using mind-body techniques for self-healing. The resistance we meet in our clients is no different from that which we ourselves experience. The benefits are equally great.
 
There are so many implications in all this for holistic practitioners. What is certainly needed in the integrative healing community is an explicit and ongoing discussion around how we can best serve the project of enabling self-managed mind-body healthcare. Clinical diagnosis and treatment are very different from acting as midwife to the birth of new consciousness. If we encourage self-management, then we need to do so in a way that is informed, congruent, grounded, authentic and well practiced. Appropriate relational and communications skills are needed. The intellectual and clinical skills need to be balanced with those the heart. The art of healing the body expands to a more holistic understanding that the growth of consciousness is also within our domain.
 
I know full well that these are deep issues continually to be explored and reflected upon. Nevertheless, in ending, I cannot resist suggesting that when appropriate we need sometimes to drop our professional demeanor and bedside manner, and be more enthusiastically encouraging not only to our clients but also to ourselves. Two images come to mind.
 
The first is of an eccentric rowing coach on a bicycle, madly clattering along the riverside, megaphone to face, hurling instructions and encouragement, devoid of all sense of self or dignity.
 
The second, to return to an earlier thought, is that of the shamanic healer, dancing, singing and rattling, ecstatic, celebratory and willing the birth of new consciousness, the transformation of the heart.
 
 
NOTES
1. Norman Cousins, Anatomy of an Illness as perceived by the patient, Norton, New York, 1979.
2. Bullen V, Fredhoi C, Bloom W, Povey J, Hucklebridge F, Evans P and Clow A,
Salivary cortisol, stress and arousal following a 5-week training programme in kinesthetic guided meditation to undergraduate students, Journal Of Holistic Medicine, Volume 3, Issue 3, August, 2006.
3. William Bloom, The Endorphin Effect, Piatkus, London, 2001.
4. Bullen V & co, op cit
5. Jorge H. Daruna, Introduction to Psychoneuroimmunology, Elsevier, Burlington, 2004; Manfred Schedlowski and Uwe Tewes (eds), Psychoneuroimmunology : An Interdisciplinary Introduction, Springer, New York, 1999; Philip Evans, Mind, Immunity and Health: The Science of Psychoneuroimmunology, Free Association Books, 2000, London.
6. Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Stanford University Press, Stanford CA, 1957.
7. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, University Of Chicago Press, 3rd edition, 1996.
8. The whole business of how psychological identity is structured and then defends and enhances itself, is fully discussed in William Bloom, Personal Identity, National Identity and International Relations, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990.
9. This is discussed in all spiritual teachings that address issues such as the dark night of the soul. For a contemporary description, see Jack Kornfield, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, Random House, New York, 2000.
10. Stephen Levine, Healing into Life and Death, Anchor Press, New York, 1989.

The Art of Holding – Therapeutic Presence

What is the greatest single act of service we can give to our fellow beings?

High up on my list is the art of holding. Holding a space. Holding a group. Holding an individual.

 
What does this mean? How is it done? It is not rocket science. The strategy is straightforward and most people instinctively understand it first time, because it is a natural thing to do if you love, respect and care for someone who needs support.
  • You feel calm in your body.
  • Your mind is generous.
  • Your heart is open and warm.
Then, from your torso, like friendly wings or arms, you extend and radiate your energy to encircle and safely hold the space and anyone in it.
 
People forget the comfort that is radiated by a grounded and stable body. In hospitals, patients in distress often reach for the reassuring hand of the porter or cleaner, not the nurse or the doctor, because it is the solid body of the physical worker that radiates a healing and reassuring vibration.
 
In tribal situations where the whole community may come together in order to discuss a crucial issue, there are elders in the circle whose major role is simply to hold the space. This holding is not done like hands-on healing which radiates into tissue in order to repair it. It is a calm lake of warm energy that creates safety and protective boundaries. In it people feel reassured and more able to be genuine and take risks.
 
If you hold the space in a business meeting, or family Christmas, or supermarket queue, it can dramatically alter the atmosphere.
 
 
THE GORILLA DREAM
 
I first learned this technique many years ago when I was the organiser of a large conference that was not succeeding. The atmosphere was terrible. Speakers and participants were becoming dissatisfied and grumpy, and they were starting to blame me. It was so uncomfortable that I began leaving the bungalow, which I was sharing with some speakers, through my bedroom window rather than encounter them as I passed through the lounge or kitchen. Not my most dignified moment.
 
My role in this conference was saved by a fantastic dream in which I met a wonderful and huge gorilla. She directed me to sit down cross-legged in front of her and to study her. She sat cross-legged too with her wide haunches grounded firmly on the earth. She then looked with great love deep into my eyes. “Do it like me. Be anchored deep in your body. Feel love for the world and for everything. Now extend your energy field, particularly from your lower torso, to encircle and hold. Just hold the space. Hold the space.”
 
I woke feeling blessed and very clear about what I needed to do. I went straight into a long and deep meditation in which I guided myself into feeling this warm acceptance of everything and everyone at the conference. I then expanded and radiated my energy outwards to hold the space and everything, comfortable and uncomfortable, that was going on in it.
 
Having anchored this new attitude and energy strategy into my body, I kept sinking back into it and radiating the holding energy as I went through the rest of the day. The atmosphere of the conference began to change. People started liking me again and I stopped climbing out of the bungalow window. It was an important lesson for me.
 
 
THERAPEUTIC PRESENCE
 
Good therapists, teachers, coaches and counsellors all instinctively use this strategy of holding. In many counselling and psychotherapy trainings, it is clearly recognised that the most important attribute of therapists is the warmth of their attitude. This is the foundation for a successful healing process.
 
For most people this is not, I believe, something new. When you care for something vulnerable it is, I believe, a natural instinct to behave with a reassuring presence that stays silent and loving as long as is needed.
Most therapy trainings do not describe these energy dynamics, but I know from having trained so many professional carers, that they immediately understand and appreciate the holding strategy. As they understand what they are already doing with their clients, it is often an ah-ha moment for many of them.
 
In Samurai, martial arts and Taoist traditions, the strategy of holding is explicitly taught as part of the chivalrous attitude of hara. In these traditions, it is specifically taught that the genuinely comforting energy comes from the lower torso. This may bother some people who are taught only to use the higher chakras, but it may reassure you to remember that the lower part of the body is your centre of gravity and, in women, it is the sacred space where children are conceived and develop. In Goddess religions and in Buddhism, images of a wide-hipped goddess or Buddha show someone who is grounded and benevolent. Children and animals find comfort in our laps. Hug a tree from your lower stomach and the sensations are deeper and more rooted.
 
If you calmly allow a warm energy to radiate from your lower torso the vibration is grounded and protective. Look at people whose presence is naturally comforting. It is a full body vibe, not just head and heart. (Of course there must be no excited vibration or any leaking sexual energies. Equally do not do this if you feel weak or vulnerable, because it may leave you too open.)
 
This full body holding heart, mind and hara/womb creates a therapeutic and healing presence that is completely non-invasive. It has a primal impact that is similar to the unconditional love that a mother brings to her foetus and infant. It is deeply comforting and soothes primitive survival mechanisms.
 
Now heres a vision. Picture yourself calm, relaxed and strong. Connected fully to Earth and Spirit. Your mind, heart and hara/womb lovingly holding humanity, plants, animals, spirits, rocks, mountains, oceans, lakes, cities, places of work, wars, peace the whole planet. Global healing.

Four Guidelines for Caring

Spring

 
As I write this we can finally feel the bubbling energies of spring. It has been a long cold winter in the British Isles and it is lovely to feel a warmth on the breeze.
 
 
But even as the weather becomes warmer people are catching flus and colds.
 
 
This is typical of life though, isn’t it? The sun comes out and we catch a cold. Spring is sprung but we may be laid low in bed. The contradictions and paradoxes of the human condition!
 
 
Ageing is similar. There we are, tootling along through life, working on our personal and spiritual development. Through study, practice and grace we acquire a tad of wisdom, soften our edges, become more conscious and compassionate. We begin to understand what life is all about and we reach a point of truly valuing the full beauty and potential of what it is to be human.
 
 
And then what happens? We all get old!
 
 
The irony is that spirituality renews and continuously freshens our minds, emotions and consciousness. We open to the energies and flow of the cosmos, and our psyches become more vibrant, awake and alive. But – and here comes physical reality – our vehicles, our flesh and blood bodies have a life span and start to wear out. Our souls are eternal but our biological bodies age and return to earth, dust to dust.
 
 
*
 
 
Except for the most fabled of yogis we are never fully in control of our bodies.
 
 
This was tragically brought home to me recently as I accompanied a young friend through his last days of terminal lung cancer due to asbestos. Michael was in his early forties. He was not at all frightened of death because he had been having powerful psychic and spiritual experiences since childhood. In fact he was looking forward to passing over, meeting old friends and exploring new dimensions.
 
 
His cancer though was particularly painful and his palliative care team worked carefully with his medication so as to ameliorate the pain without impairing his mind.
 
 
The high dosages of morphine however occasionally overwhelmed his brain and nervous system and he would slip sometimes into states of paranoid delusion.
 
 
At one stage the hospital contacted me to come and help manage him. When I arrived he was in an anxious and delusional state, trying to escape. His normal rational mind was not present. It took three hours to calm him down.
 
 
I soothed him through being a grounded and reassuring presence. The words I spoke to him were hardly relevant except that I was careful not to say anything that might provoke or trigger him.
 
 
More than anything, he needed the reassuring, relaxed and healing vibration of my body.
 
 
My own calm body could communicate directly to his nervous system and soothe him.
 
 
*
 
 
This form of healing – sometimes called co-presence – requires that every cell of your body be relaxed and in an ambience of wellbeing.
 
 
I like to imagine that there is a tiny elemental creature in every cell and all these wee creatures relax as if stretched out and sunbathing in deck chairs.
 
Then all the elementals in my companion’s body will also relax and sunbathe.
 
 
This for me is the essence of good ‘bedside manner’: body elementals on sun loungers! (Could we put that in the trainings for medical schools?)
 
 
*
 
 
I saw again the way in which our physical bodies have their own dynamic in the hours shortly before Michael’s death. He was now mainly unconscious occasionally surfacing with a few mumbled words, but at several points his body tried to break free of his bed. As a companion and observer it was difficult now for me to fully understand the relationship between his soul and his body.
 
 
It is similar in old age when people for example may endure Alzheimers or dementia. The brain and nervous system seem to be pursuing one process, whilst consciousness and the soul appear to be dancing to another tune. There is a process happening here that is difficult to understand.
 
 
*
 
 
To help us develop an appropriate attitude I often quote the American professor of nursing Margaret Newman. She is spiritually very down-to-earth.
 
People, she taught her nurses, are always moving between wellness and illness. It is the human cycle. We are ill and then we are well. The job of a nurse, she suggested, is to recognise the true nature of this process. She suggested to her colleagues that their true vocation is not to nurse wellness but to birth consciousness.
 
 
This new consciousness transcends our physical state and is the essence of true health.
 
In the Spiritual Companions project, which I direct, we help train people in pastoral care and we often discuss this tension that exists in our work. On one side we want to relieve suffering. On the other side we want to help people wake up and be conscious.
 
 
In guiding how we might behave in these difficult situations, I propose four simple guidelines:
 
 
1.
Have a relaxed and kind body vibration, so that it reassures and soothes your companion.
 
 
2.
Intuitively, prayerfully and compassionately tune into and greet your companion’s soul.
 
 
3.
Speak only words that are carefully chosen and appropriate to your companion’s state.
 
 
4.
And if you physically touch your companion do so with great tenderness, sensitivity and care.
 
 
These might be good guidelines too for all of us when we are with someone who is vulnerable or in distress.
 
And I would like my own children, friends and carers to abide by them if ever they have to care for me.
 
 
*
 
 
But today spring is in the air!
 
I salute the eternal bubbling spring of our souls and I wish you all many blessings and much love.

Preparing for Surgery

2011

This article was also published in the Journal of the British Holistic Medical Association
Here I am alive and well, having gone through my first ever general anaesthetic and surgery and I am grateful to be so well. (What I thought was the natural decline of old age turned out to be a surfeit of calcium, which is now healed, and I feel vital again! And lucky.)
So I thought I would share the strategies I used to prepare for the surgery and that are relevant to other challenging situations. I am hoping that these ideas and tactics will prove useful for you too if you find yourself facing something similar.
The core message of this article is the possibility of transforming a crisis into a blessing, from a state of worry into a state of kindness, courage and generosity. In relation to my surgery, I could not just switch on that attitude. It took me a while to get there.
* * *
The first thing I had to manage was my fear around the surgery. I did not mind the actual surgery, but I discovered that I had a phobia of general anaesthetics. This was related to childhood nightmares and sometimes waking up conscious, but unable to move in my paralysed body.
I did some research and, speaking to friends who are medical doctors, I was reassured that this phobia is completely normal and doctors themselves have precisely the same anxiety. It is a sensible anxiety, isn’t it, when faced with someone using a poisonous drug to render us unconscious. (Several of my ex-stoner friends, however, smiled when they remembered their operations and told me to enjoy the buzz.)
I began regular conversations with my body as if it were a dear friend. I explained to it the reason for the surgery and the whole situation. I acknowledged that the intrusion would be traumatic and reassured it that I would provide the necessary healing and care. I focused on particular organs and body areas, and gave them compassionate awareness and kind energy from my inner smile. All of this sent reassuring signals through my nervous and endocrinal systems, reducing stress, increasing the endorphins and strengthening my immune system.
I also worked directly with my phobia of the general anaesthetic. I contemplated, sensed and visualised myself inside the hospital and operating theatre. I visualised myself slowly going through the whole surgical procedure and as I did this exercise, I noticed the sensations of panic as they arose in my body and emotions. I kept my breathing calm and greeted these uncomfortable feelings with the affection of a loving parent, accepting them and cradling them with comfort. Over a few weeks of daily practice, these phobic sensations decreased and I began to feel at ease with the idea of anaesthesia.
I also asked an experienced homeopath to put together a remedy for me. It included arnica and phosphorus, and had other remedies relevant to me. I also carried some Bach Rescue Remedy.
* * *
At the same time I began to notice a tendency in me to slob out as I approached the surgery. This included the normal stuff of feeling sorry for myself, eating too much of the wrong food, slumping with bad posture and so on. I was playing myself a story that I would get my body healthy again after the surgery.
I knew that I had to counter-balance this slothful attitude. As best I could, therefore, given the pain and fatigue, I worked to offset this attitude and exercised, ate and toned so as to be as fit as possible. I stretched, did weights and walked. Not a lot, but up to my limits. A fit body with a fit attitude, where the immune system is supported, will obviously respond better to surgical intrusion and crisis than one that is placid.
I clearly recognised that any movement in this direction was better than doing nothing.
I also used strategies from spiritual healing and qi gung to strengthen my nervous system and vitalise my subtle energy anatomy. The key here was my attitude, because even if I could not bring my physical body into a toned and vital state, I could nevertheless work on my pranic field and qi.
***
For several months I carefully prepared myself in daily meditations. As I wrote above, I worked slowly through my phobia and fears. I talked with and reassured my body. I did self-healing.
At the same time I focused on getting the best possible outcome from the surgery. I blessed the surgery team and visualised working in perfect harmony with a full support team of inner helpers, including great healing spirits. I particularly liked a visualisation done by my friend, Jane, when she was preparing for a caesarean. She threw a few grenades into the operating theatre and these grenades exploded with sparkles of light and healing spirits. I asked and prayed for the help and support of all beings who could make the process graceful and easy.
I also visualised myself after the surgery, fit and bouncing with health as I facilitated trainings, wrote a new book and had a walking holiday.
But as I did all this inner work, I knew that something was wrong. Something was worrying me and I could not quite get what it was. Then, slowly, it began to dawn on me and I realised two crucial things.
The first was that I was coming from a point of anxiety and trying to fix it all so that I did not feel frightened.
The second was that my approach was self-centred and concerned only with me.
As I saw this, I was surprised, in fact, slightly shocked. With everything that I teach, with everything that I truly believe, in this situation I had missed the essence.
* * *
So I came home to the core of what I teach, three golden keys.
How can I use this situation to connect more fully with the wonder and energy of nature and the cosmos?
How does it help me to reflect and expand my consciousness?
How can I serve others and be more compassionate?
Coming home to these core issues, I immediately felt different. Asking those questions completely reframed the whole situation. With one of those miraculous waves of the attitudinal magic wand, I swapped worry for gratitude.
This health crisis was doing good work. It was opening me up and helping me to surrender to the bliss fields of the cosmic ocean. Every concern and every fear was a useful reminder to be fully conscious and to watch what was happening with compassion and equanimity. As Margaret Newman professor of nursing wrote in her book ‘Health as Expanding Consciousnessâ’, we human beings are always doing wellness and illness. We swing between the two. The real issue in not whether we are ill or well. The real issue is how our consciousness is developing, whichever state we are in.
All of this also led me to another uncomfortable insight. As is normal, the fatigue, anxiety and discomfort of the illness had put me on a short fuse and I, usually a very cheerful creature, had more negative thoughts and emotions than usual. I had been blaming the crisis for this irritability. But now I could clearly see that the pressure cooker of the crisis was actually just revealing what was always there but repressed and below my threshold of awareness. Those negative thoughts and irritabilities were all mine, usually repressed and managed inside a cheerful container.
Now they were emerging. Instead of rationalising that they belonged to the circumstances, I needed to own and accept them as mine. In fact, one of my prayers over the years has been to meet and integrate every aspect of my shadow-self before I die. In this context, this surfacing of negativity was to be welcomed. Now I see you! Welcome!
This does not get rid of the actual pain or crisis, but it sure provides an opportunity to self-heal deep psychological stuff, expand consciousness and develop compassion. Thanks for the prods! What a great silver lining.
* * *
I also noticed that I wanted to control the medical team so that they benefited me as much as possible. My attitude was completely understandable, but not congruent with my core values of compassion and supporting others. So I began to visualise the medics and the hospital, and I began another kind of prayer.
Whatever happens to me, may my presence and the whole process be a blessing for everyone involved.
I have created and am responsible for this whole situation. I am sorry for everything negative I may have created and I ask for forgiveness. May everyone in the hospital be loved and blessed. I give thanks for this wonderful situation and lesson.
So for weeks before the surgery, I visualised and rehearsed that my presence there would be a complete blessing for all of them, regardless of what happened. I thought the unthinkable: that the operation might be botched, that I would become a cabbage, that I would need multiple surgeries, that I would die, that I would be immobile but conscious. But that whatever happened, I would still nevertheless be a blessing and comfort to all those people.
If these ideas are uncomfortable for you to read, they were also uncomfortable for me to think. But this surely is one of the great strengths of true spirituality, that it calls us to face the truth, to be courageous and to be generous.
Of course, I still wanted a perfect outcome to the surgery and, of course, I want everyone to emerge from their crises and challenges with grace and fulfilment. But if we are on the path of spiritual development, then we need to acknowledge that far more important than our usual desires for happiness and health, is our growth and transformation to becoming conscious and compassionate.
Aligned and congruent with this kind of spiritual philosophy, I now felt a genuine sense of inner calm and that I had a foundation of integrity from which I could move cleanly forward into the situation.
* * *
As usual, the real solution to facing and managing my crisis was not simple.
I needed to be intelligently kind towards myself. I needed to allow and work with my own negativity. I needed to use all the different healing and therapeutic strategies that are available. I asked for and received help. And I aligned with what I consider to be the core purpose of spiritual development - the growth of connection, compassion and consciousness.
If you too are in any kind of crisis, I wish you love, healing and relief. And if you have the reserves of energy, I wish you also the grace of using your crisis for personal growth and transformation.